Smile Politely

Science and humanity intersect at Beckman Institute

Thousands of scientists roam the grounds of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign every day, but many in the community have no idea what they do. This column is hoping to change that. Welcome to the new science column on Smile Politely, and for its debut article, I am going to introduce you to the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, or as students put it; Beckman. I like to refer to it as the “North Pole” of campus, and I say North Pole as it is the northernmost building, the sighting of a creature is rare, and it has sub-zero temperature working conditions (humor intended).

Beckman is an interdisciplinary research institute devoted to some of the most advanced research in physical sciences, engineering, biology, and neuroscience in the world. For instance, the next generation of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) systems might be birthing here at Beckman.

Beckman Institute was a gift from Arnold Beckman (1900-2004) and his wife Mabel (1900-1989). They were scientists and philanthropists with the pursuit of a better scientific universe, and thus blessed this little town with a research institute.

Along with its scientific research, Beckman is also home to various events, including international conferences. A few weekends ago, the National Taiwan University-Illinois forum on global issues brought together engineering faculty in natural resources, agricultural sciences, and humanities from all around the world to discuss environmental impacts and sustainability issues in expanding urban areas with an additional focus on the human factors that affect and are affected by urban lifestyles.

The third floor of Beckman is home to really cool aquariums. There is one particular tank of fish along the hallway which is actually just a sneak peek to the vast aquariums that exist behind the wall. This window opens our eyes to the six varieties of interesting coral reef fish, with specific descriptions right next to it. These fish also give constant company to the folks passing by. Occasionally, I will spot some resident animal technicians cooing to the fishes, and as an animal lover, I find that absolutely adorable.

After work hours, the tables and chairs of Beckman fill up with creatures of the night who are hoping to get some work done. Occasionally, a scientist or two will step out of their laboratories to realize the sun has set, only to call pizza-delivery because the time is dictated by a rumbling stomach. Eric Epstein from the Braun Group in the Materials Science and Engineering Department says, “If popcorn delivery was a thing, I don’t think I would ever have to leave Beckman. This is home. The only thing lacking is popcorn, and frozen berries.” Just like Eric, many scientists feel that Beckman is their home. Graduate students have their little cubicle spaces, each a small part of the world that does some big exploration. Beckman has, for the most part, been a nurturing scientific environment that encourages discussion and collaborations among scientists because of a sense of belonging, a sense of home. Sometimes, because of collaborations or mere conversation, one gets to know the people working in neighbouring laboratories. I am also pretty sure that Beckman staff realizes that food is what brings people together, hence the annual Christmas party and brown-bag seminars. The only other time all the laboratory rats come out is during a fire alarm, when an alarmingly (pun intended) large number of people gather on the quad outside the building. During my first fire drill, I was genuinely in awe of the sheer number of human beings in this deceivingly empty building.

In a nutshell, Beckman Institute is an amalgamation of humanity and science. Scientists from all walks of life, all around the world, end up in the middle of cornfields in the Midwest in the pursuit of better scientific research.

In the future, I will be writing about specific research studies and also other research facilities in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. So many scientific breakthroughs are pioneered here in Champaign-Urbana, and I hope to provide the local scoop on what is happening in the science world.

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